01/01/2005 1:00AM

New day in the sun

Fans will find a mix of rustic - temporary tents (top) - and new - a giant-screen television (above) - at the 2005 Gulfstream meet.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The new era at Gulfstream Park will begin the old-fashioned way amid a country fair atmosphere for the 2005 meeting, which opens Monday and continues through April 24.

Gulfstream Park, owned by Magna Entertainment Corp., is in the midst of a major renovation that began immediately following the conclusion of the 2004 meet with the demolition of the track's grandstand. Both the main track and turf course were torn up and have been replaced by larger, wider tracks. All 17 barns that ran along the backstretch were demolished and have been replaced by seven state-of-the-art barns. Two new receiving barns have been built at the head of the stretch and a new dormitory is under construction and expected to be ready later this month.

Rebuilding the grandstand, however, will take another year. That project is scheduled to be completed in time for the opening of the 2006 meeting. To accommodate the upcoming meeting, large tents and other temporary structures have been erected from the head of the stretch to the sixteenth pole. A temporary paddock and walking ring was built behind those structures near the eighth pole, and the winner's circle will be a chalked circle near the head of the stretch.

"There's no question there will be some inconveniences for everybody involved with the upcoming meet," said Frank Stronach, MEC's chairman and the driving force behind the renovation of the track. "This will be like a fair meet, and I think the people will have a fun time. And when we have the new facility ready and open next year, we're going to put on a great show."

Racing secretary Dave Bailey believes he's in position to put on a great show this winter despite the obvious drawbacks and hardships that have been created by the construction project.

"The racing is going to be great here this winter," said Bailey. "Having the two new racetracks will be a huge plus, especially the bigger, wider turf course. I'll be able to start writing three races a day on the turf beginning the last weekend in January, and if all goes well, hopefully four a day in March and April. We've also got some tremendous new additions to our roster of trainers stabled down here, with Bobby Frankel, Mike Mitchell, Ronny Werner, and Henry Cochran among the new outfits in town for the winter. As a result, the quality of our racing should be the best ever in 2005."

The stakes schedule, as usual, is a good one, with the most notable change coming in the marquee event of the program, the $1 million Florida Derby. Bailey changed the date of the 2005 Florida Derby from its traditional spot in mid-March to April 2 - five weeks before the Kentucky Derby - to allow for better spacing between the prep races leading up to the Florida Derby and to give trainers a chance to use the race as a final prep for the Kentucky Derby. He also hopes the change might help persuade Northern horsemen to keep horses in the local barn area a little longer before shipping back home.

There is a strong group of horses stabled in south Florida this winter, including Breeders' Cup winners Ghostzapper, Ashado, and Better Talk Now. Of that trio, Ashado is the only one committed to run during the meeting, with her main goal the Grade 2, $200,000 Rampart Handicap on March 26.

Among the top older males expected to appear here are Roses in May, Funny Cide, Saint Liam, and the undefeated Commentator, who is expected to begin his 2005 campaign next Saturday in the $100,000 Hal's Hope Handicap. Saint Liam, Roses in May, and Commentator are all pointing for the Grade 1, $500,000 Donn Handicap on Feb. 5, while Funny Cide's main goal is the Grade 2, $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap on March 5.

In addition to Ashado, the filly and mare division also includes Madcap Escapade, who turned in three sensational performances when launching her career during the 2004 Gulfstream meeting. Idle since finishing third behind Ashado in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, Madcap Escapade could launch her comeback sometime near the end of the month or in early February.

Another highlight of the meet will be Sunshine Millions Day on Jan. 29, which includes four stakes restricted to Florida- and California-breds worth a total of over $2 million, highlighted by the $1 million Classic. Four other Sunshine Millions stakes will be run the same day at Santa Anita.

Topping Monday's 10-race opening-day program is a $37,000 allowance race at a mile on the turf. Icy Atlantic, coming off a seventh-place finish as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade 3 Calder Derby, tops a field that also includes Ten Cents a Shine.